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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Ten-Year Status Report on Women’s Corrections


Security Classification

Throughout the history of women’s corrections, numerous concerns related to the classification of women offenders have been identified. More recently, various stakeholders and external reports (in particular the Public Accounts Committee in November 2003 and the Canadian Human Rights Report of January 2004) have recommended that CSC develop an initial security classification scale specifically for women.

Understanding and differentiating offenders based on the risk that they pose to others is essential for both the safety of staff and offenders and for the operation of an efficient correctional system. Being able to distinguish between higher risk and lower risk offenders assists CSC in making decisions on the management of offenders and how to best focus on their program, treatment and reintegration needs while ensuring the safety of the public.

Whether women offenders are classified according to the principles of risk and need or evaluated in terms of their “pathways” to crime, there is consensus on one point: assessment is the cornerstone to effective correctional intervention.

CSC has been assessing and reassessing offenders in one form or another since its beginning; how and when we undertake this has changed and evolved over the years. Since the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and its Regulations came into effect in 1992, CSC is required to assign a security classification of minimum, medium, or maximum to each offender and assess the following factors: public safety, escape risk and institutional adjustment.

Research has shown that professional or clinical judgment is best supported by the use of an actuarial instrument. Currently, all offenders are assessed and then assigned a security classification based on a comprehensive and integrated intake assessment process that uses both actuarial and clinical methods. An offender’s initial placement decision is determined using the findings of a standardized research-based, actuarial tool called the Custody Rating Scale (CRS), combined with the judgment of experienced and specialized staff and psychological information.

Initial Security Classification

When an offender is first admitted to federal custody, the Intake Assessment process is initiated. During this process, CSC collects all relevant information including police reports, the sentencing judge’s comments, victim impact statements, information on the offender’s criminal history and social and family background. The CRS assists caseworkers to assign the most appropriate security classification to offenders. The caseworker scores each factor based on the information and documents obtained during the intake assessment process.

This information is analyzed and, based on the results of both the scale and the overall assessment, the offender is given a minimum, medium or maximum security classification. Generally, the caseworker’s clinical appraisal will be “anchored” by the actuarial score, but where the actuarial scale results are inconsistent with the clinical appraisal, the overall assessment must provide a rationale to justify the assigned security level. The intake assessment process also assists staff in identifying appropriate programs to address the issues that resulted in an offender’s incarceration.

The CRS was developed based on a sample of men offenders but its reliability, validity and practical use has also been assessed favourably with women offenders. In a 2002 study, The Custody Rating Scale, Initial Security Level Placement and Women Offenders, CSC validated the CRS for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women offenders. In 2004, the CRS was again validated for women. The results were published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology.

Despite this evidence, concerns have been raised that the CRS does not include variables specifically relevant to women such as relationships, abuse, mental health and parenting issues. While many assessment factors are similar for men and women, there are some significant differences and it was felt that the current process could be improved by developing a tool that captures the unique needs of women. As such, CSC has hired external consultants with expertise in research methodologies and women's issues to develop a new gender-informed initial security classification tool. As part of this process, a survey of staff, inmates and stakeholders is being conducted to seek their input on the development of the tool.

In February 2001, CSC modified its policy so that offenders serving a life sentence for first or second degree murder were required to spend at least the first two years of their federal sentence in a maximum-security institution. In exceptional cases, offenders could be granted an exemption and be assigned a medium-security classification initially or within that two-year period with the approval of the Assistant Commissioner, Correctional Operations and Programs. In September 2005, this policy was modified such that the Warden now have the authority to grant the exemption.

Security Reclassification

The Canadian approach to corrections is based on the premise, supported by research, that people can and do change with appropriate programs and interventions. An offender’s initial security classification is not static but responds to the progress made during incarceration, so the security classification is reviewed at regular intervals and key points throughout the sentence. Where offenders have demonstrated progress and risk is deemed manageable, the security classification can be reduced. This results in a less restrictive environment that is more conducive to continued progress.

Until implementation of the Security Reclassification Scale for Women (SRSW) in September 2005, CSC used a structured clinical method to reclassify women offenders based on an assessment of public safety, escape risk and institutional adjustment. The SRSW is responsive to both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal women. The security classification of each women offender is reviewed using the SRSW at least once per year. Women offenders classified at maximum security, because of the restrictive nature of this security level, are reviewed every six months. When the SRSW was implemented, the maximum security Aboriginal women were reviewed on a priority basis.

Women offenders with minimum (34%) and medium (45%) security classifications live in houses that accommodate up to 10 individuals. They are responsible for their daily needs, including cooking, cleaning and laundry and must work together to make the house function. Women classified as maximum security (10%) are housed in Secure Units that have more traditional cell accommodation. High levels of intervention and supervision are provided by staff who have received specialized training to manage offenders’ behaviour and risk so that they can return to the open living environment as soon as safely possible. Mental health needs of maximum security women that cannot be managed in a Secure Unit are handled through referrals to the treatment units for women at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) and the Institut Philippe Pinel de Montréal.

Key Accomplishments

  • Content guidelines to assist in the intake assessment of women offenders were developed with the intent to address the unique issues related to the intake process and intervention services for women offenders (1995).
  • CSC has conducted several studies on the security classification of women offenders including: The Validity of the Custody Rating Scale for the Initial Security Classification of Aboriginal Women (2002), Risk and Need Among Federally Sentenced Female Offenders: A Comparison of Minimum, Medium and Maximum Security Inmates (1997), An Examination of Medium- and Maximum-Security Federally-Sentenced Female Offenders (1997).
  • In 1999, CSC developed the Intensive Intervention Strategy to better address the needs and risks of women classified as maximum security (Secure Units) and those classified at minimum and medium security who have mental health problems (accommodated in the Structured Living Environment houses).
  • After approximately three years of field testing, the Security Reclassification Scale for Women was implemented in September 2005. It is responsive to both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal women.
  • A series of gender and culturally responsive interview prompts have been added to the Dynamic Factor Identification and Analysis (DFIA). The DFIA, a needs assessment protocol within the Offender Intake Assessment informs an offender’s security classification. Field-testing of the DFIA will commence in 2006-07.
  • An initial security classification tool specific to women offenders, including Aboriginal women, is being developed. This is a multi-year project given the complexity of instrument development and the need for lengthy field testing to gather sufficient data. Field testing is expected to commence in December 2006. Full implementation is scheduled to take place in September 2009.

Challenges and Next Steps

There is an increase in the number of admissions of Aboriginal women offenders which presents various challenges in terms of interventions and management strategies. Aboriginal women tend to have more prior convictions, be under sentence for more serious offences and have more serious substance abuse problems. These characteristics are well established predictors of institutional adjustment problems, which contribute to a greater proportion of Aboriginal women with a maximum security classification. These characteristics also mean that Aboriginal women offenders may require more intensive treatment interventions such as those offered at the women’s unit at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies).

Future plans include ongoing research to re-examine the reliability and validity of the SRSW for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women.